Trekking in the Khumbu
Nepal is a magical adventure destination. Home to eight of the world’s 14 peaks over 8000 metres. A country with inspiring and friendly locals and a well developed trekking infrastructure. It's a place that really should be on everyone’s must visit list.
Nepal has many amazing areas to explore but the most popular is undoubtedly the Khumbu Valley. For anyone interested in mountaineering history trekking in the Khumbu will feel like a game of mountain 'eye spy' as you follow in the footsteps of the countless expeditions that have used this route to access Himalayan giants like Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Nuptse or Cholatse. Having said that, even for those who aren't the least bit interested in mountaineering, the Khumbu is one of the world's greatest trekking venues. Very few places offer as warm a welcome with such breath taking scenery.
Many trekking companies run itineraries in this area and having logistical support and back up will appeal to many. However, the infrastructure created by the thousands that have gone before means you can also consider organising your own trip relatively easily. The following information should get you on your way.......
When to go
The most popular trekking period is the post monsoon months of October and November. During this time the weather is usually stable and the visibility excellent. The downside is that this is also the busiest trekking period. An alternative is the pre monsoon period of March to May. During this time there is lots of spring growth but conditions can be more variable.
Getting there and life in Kathmandu
Flying to Kathmandu from the main UK airports is pretty easy. Shop around and you’ll probably get a return fare for around £600 (it depends a lot on how close to departure you book). Once you get to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International airport it's easy to get a taxi to your hotel.
Most tourists stay in the Thamel District and it’s a great option with its mix of Nepalese style venues alongside westernised options. In Thamel you’ll easily find accommodation catering for all budgets. At the cheaper end it’s hard to beat the Kathmandu Guesthouse or Holy Lodge but there are over 100 to choose from. They do get busy so book ahead.
You’ll also be able to pick up any equipment and food you might need for your adventures within easy walking distance and there’s well stocked bookshops selling a full range of maps and guides alongside all the books you could ever want to read about those epic Himalayan ascents. There’s also a stack of internet cafes and welcoming craft and gift stores to wander around. It's a laid back and friendly place.
The quickest and easiest route to the mountains is to take the famous flight to Lukla. This 45 minute hop costs around $250 return and, particularly if you’ve got limited time, it is money well spent. The landing at Lukla is spectacular with an upward sloping runway that makes the experience worth it even if just for the thrill factor! Lukla is in a stunning location but it’s also in the heart of the mountains and weather can sometimes wreak havoc on the flight schedules. There are plenty of lodges to stay in but if you get a morning flight you will probably want to head off straight away. Either way, when you are ready to hit the trails, the path to the Khumbu is just on the opposite side of the airport.
For those with more time available it is possible to get a bus from Kathmandu to the village of Jiri (1950 metres) and walk from there. Jiri was the main starting point for trekkers until the Lukla airstrip was built in 1964 and, with many trekkers now choosing to fly, it offers a tranquil week long route up to Namche Bazaar. The modest starting altitude allows a gradual acclimatisation friendly height gain and it’s a stunning route that follows winding rivers, crosses terraced fields and traverses forested ridges. For those keen to experience the Lukla to Kathmandu flight you can always walk up via Jiri and then fly back to give the best of both worlds.
Porters/guides or going it alone?
You can choose whether to hire a porter, a guide, a porter/guide or go it alone. Porters are the unsung load carrying heroes of the Khumbu and will ease your burden by carrying up to 30 kgs of your load (so a couple of trekkers could easily share one). Porters often talk little or no English but they know the Khumbu inside out and typically you just arrange a place to meet up at the end of the day and your bags will be waiting for you.
A porter/guide is another possibility. They will typically carry 5/10kgs of your load and accompany you as you walk. They often speak much better English and suit people that want the reassurance of having someone that knows the trails and can give you information about what you are seeing around you.
A final option is to go it alone. The suggested kit list below is easily managed by reasonably fit hillwalkers and the trails in the Khumbu region are easy to navigate. Being under your own steam will allow you to be flexible about when and where you stop and, of course, will save some money. Maps of the region are widely available in Kathmandu and the highly recommended Jamie McGuiness guidebook ‘Trekking in the Everest Region’ (Trailblazer Guides) has all the information you could ever need and the trek timings are realistic.
The Teahouse (or lodge) system in Nepal is fantastic. Developed over many years (and still developing) and brilliant in its simplicity. All you need to do is turn up at a village of your choice and ask around the various lodges for a room. Most areas operate a price setting system so you don’t pay much for the room but you’ll be expected to also eat at the lodge to get this price.
The food is usually very good. Alongside traditional local dishes like dahl baht you'll find lots of western style dishes like 'Swiss Rosti', omelettes, apple pie and, in some lodges, even fried Mars Bar or Snicker rolls, which provide a handy energy boost after a long day on the trail.
The lodge rooms are simple and you’ll usually just get a couple of single beds in each room. You’ll be given a padlock to lock the door and some rooms have simple lights powered by solar charged batteries (but ensure you’ve got a torch because you probably won’t get enough light from them to read by).
Generally you will find a room without booking but if there’s a large group or you plan to arrive late you may want to try to book in advance. Alternatively, at busy times you may want to start your trekking day earlier to ensure you arrive at the next lodge before the crowds. Some lodges allow camping in the grounds but then you’ll obviously need to carry a tent and mat.
What to take
If you are planning to go it alone it is perfectly possible to fit all you need into a 40-45 litre rucksack. Bear in mind that you’ll be carrying a reasonable weight for several hours a day so don’t scrimp on the model you choose. A lightweight model with comfortable back system, well-padded shoulder straps and a supportive waist belt will serve you well.
Well fitting, lightweight boots are ideal. Choose some with good ankle support, a solid grippy sole and enough room at the front to avoid destroying your toes on long descents. Getting your boots fitted at a specialist shop is highly recommended and make sure you break them in before you go.
Some teahouses have blankets, some have duvets but some have nothing at all. I strongly suggest taking a 3 season down sleeping bag to ensure you have good sleeps. Bear in mind that there is usually no heating in the dorms and it gets chilly at night. I always store my sleeping bag in a dry bag so I know that it will be dry no matter what the day throws at me.
Once the sun goes in you’ll really appreciate a warm down jacket to pull on for sitting in the lounge, star gazing outside or even backing up your sleeping bag on really cold nights.
A lightweight Paclite or Event type jacket and overtrousers will be perfect.
A mid weight fleece, a couple of wicking base layers with long sleeves, a few pairs of underwear, some comfortable trekking pants, a couple of sets of socks, warm hat, sun hat, and a light pair of gloves and you should be set. There will be some opportunities for washing clothes but it isn’t so easy in the upper reaches of the Khumbu so you need to be prepared to wear stuff for quite a while at times.
Bits and bobs
Toiletries and a small travel towel, water carriers for at least 2 litres (I take a 1 litre Nalgene and 2 litre Platypus type water bag so I’ve got plenty of capacity), high factor suncream, good quality sunglasses, something to read (the nights are often quiet so you’ll value something to pass the time), money belt for keeping your documents safe, trekking poles (good for tricky descents) a small first aid kit and personal medications, sanitary products, camera (and spare battery), a headtorch (you’ll use this a lot in the dimly lit tea house bedrooms) and some way to purify water (some lodges provide boiled or purified water but I prefer to have a system like Chlorine Dioxide as a back-up) and some wet wipes (washing facilities can sometimes be hard to find and a bit of a wet wipe wash here and there works wonders for your morale!) and some toilet paper plus alcholol-based hand cleanser.
Many lodges rely on solar power so don't count on always being able to charge batteries. It may be worth taking a personal solar panel if you need to keep things topped up. Bear in mind that there is a very good phone signal in most of this area so a phone is worth considering for emergency purposes.
A final couple of items to consider are some earplugs and a pee bottle. The dividing walls in most dormitories are made of thin plywood and you can often hear everything from nearby rooms so a pair of squidgy foam earplugs will be worth their weight in….well….foam! As for a pee bottle (and maybe a Shewee device for women) – I wouldn’t be without one!
A suggested itinerary
There’s load of choice about where you walk and how far you travel in a day – it really depends on your aspirations, fitness levels and the time you have available. However, to give you a tried and tested option the following route will get you to some of the best bits in a manageable circular trek. It also includes the Khumbu holy grail of Kala Pattar and a possible additional trek round to Everest Base Camp. The individual trekking legs are timed to allow plenty of rest stops and a realistic ascent profile but please remember that the altitude is a major factor and you should take steps to ensure you know how to deal with the potential problems that can occur and how to deal with them.
Kathmandu to Phakding
Flying in to one of the world’s most iconic airports is always a thrill. Sit on the left hand side of the plane and you should get (cloud permitting) staggering views of the mountains as you head across. Once at Lukla the path to the Khumbu starts on the far side of the airport. It is impossible to miss the well-trodden trail to Khumbu heaven and soon you’ll be wandering down a steep path to the valley base. The path to Phakding follows the mighty Dubh Kosi river and it’s a stunning introduction to what lies ahead. Getting to Phakding will only take a few hours and this little village is the perfect first night stop.
Phakding to Namche
A few awesome cable bridges, some stunning scenery and a lung busting 800 metre final climb brings you to the mecca that is Namche. The village is a bustling place with a rich history as the gateway to the Khumbu for decades of ground breaking expeditions. The village has a full range of bars, internet cafes and small shops plus a highly recommended bakery where you can eat your pastry while sitting on the terrace enjoying stunning scenery.
Namche is high (3450 metres) so it’s well worth taking a rest day here to aid acclimatisation. Having said that, try and avoid sitting around all day as you’ll acclimatise better if you keep active. Explore the village or hike up to the Everest View Hotel and you’ll feel you have earned that afternoon doughnut back at the bakery!
Namche to Dole
The classic itinerary from here takes you towards Kala Pattar but our circular route takes us up the alternative valley to Dole. This leads you via the Mong La Col which is a great place to relax and drink with the bonus of stunning views across to Ama Dablam. After the long climb up to the Mong La get mentally prepared as you’ll drop down a demoralizingly long way before then having to climb back up steeply to the isolated village of Dole.
Dole to Machermo
From Dole a pleasant short walk takes you to Machermo. Don’t be tempted to go further today as you are getting higher and need time to acclimatise. It’s a good place to relax and you’ll be able to attend the daily altitude talk at the medical base – well worth attending but please give a donation to support the fantastic work this facility does both for travellers and locals.
Machermo to Gokyo
This stunning day follows a beautiful valley leading to the famous Gokyo Lakes. The views get better and better the further you go and, as you approach Goyko Village, you’ll see the cirque of mountains where Cho Oyo sits and left of the village you’ll see the trail of tourists ascending Gokyo Ri (well worth the effort both for acclimatisation and the view!) although many people head up late afternoon to catch the sunset (remember warm clothes and a headtorch).
It is well worth giving Gokyo a day of your life to continue the acclimatisation process. Try to stretch the legs and there are plenty of nice easy walks around the lakes. One popular option will take you up to Noddy’s Point for some excellent Everest views.
Gokyo to Dragnag
After leaving Gokyo you are heading across the moraine to the small settlement of Dragnag. This is a short walk (about 2 hours) but you need to take care as the exact route changes frequently due to the increasing lake size (apparently another victim of global warming). Your best source of information on the current route will be your lodge owner.
Dragnag to Dzongla (or Loboche)
This is a big day but it's certainly worth the effort. Your route is going to take you on a long climb over the Cho La pass and into the next valley. An early start is recommended to ensure you have plenty of time in hand. The amount of snow at the top of the pass varies so take that into account and get advice from the lodge owner in Dragnag or check to see whether people are getting over from the other side.
Once over the pass you’ll get amazing views into the next valley and the surrounding peaks will take your breath away. This valley is the one you now follow (there’s some fairly steep but straight forward scrambly sections) down to Dzongla. You can stop at the lodge here or, time permitting, you might decide to plough on to Loboche. My preference is to get to Loboche that day but the lodges there get very busy so consider if there’s time to get there before the crowds. It’s a couple of hours walk from Dzongla.
Dzongla to Loboche (or rest day if you got to Loboche yesterday)
Depending on what you did yesterday you can either trek round to Loboche today or take a rest day if you arrived there last night. There are plenty of lodges in Loboche and it’s a famous stopping point.
Loboche to Kala Pattar (and back to Loboche)
What you do today depends on how you want to play your big Everest viewing day. The best place to get the classic view is from the top of Kala Pattar which is the hill overlooking Everest Base Camp. If you want the classic sunset shots you’ll have to either stay at Gorak Shep (the small village under Kala Pattar) or walk back to Loboche in the dark.
My preference, if you are happy to snap photos earlier in the day, is to make an early start from Loboche to Gorak Shep, continue up Kala Pattar then return to Loboche in the same day. This means you get to keep the same room in Loboche, can travel light, and you still get plenty of time. It’s a round trip of about 8 hours.
An alternative day 11 (or a possible extra day added in to your itinerary) would be to walk to Everest Base Camp (EBC). This is possible from Lobuche although it is a long day requiring an early start. If time allows you can make this a shorter day by walking to Gorak Shep then heading to EBC after spending a night there. Either way, the route from Gorak Shep initially follows steady ground before following the side of the glacier and descending onto the moraine to weave round to the flatter area used for base camp. In the Spring this will be busy with expeditions but will be relatively deserted in the post monsoon period. Once at base camp it is possible to get close up views of the mighty Khumbu Ice Fall and explore the base camp area before returning to Gorak Shep or Lobuche.
Loboche to Dingboche
It’s all downhill from here – physically at least! The walk from Loboche follows a lovely valley before you break round to the village of Dingboche. There are plenty of great lodges here as well as internet access and great views up the valley towards Island Peak and the South Face of Lhotse and Ama Dablam is visible from here too. An alternative place to stay would be Pheriche which is nearby (and it has another medical clinic if needed).
Dingboche to Tengboche
Again you are gradually losing some of the height you’ve gained and, as you are getting onto the classic Everest Trail, the paths are likely to be busier. That said, this is one of my favourite stretches to walk as the terrain is varied, the views sublime and it always feels to me like you are right in the teeth of the mountains. You’ll arrive at the village of Tengboche in good time and it’s well worth checking out the famous monastery which marks the villages place as a religious centre of the Khumbu. The monastery was destroyed by a fire in 1989 so all you see is fairly new – but it’s still a mightily impressive building.
Tengboche to Monjo
From Tengboche you are now completing the loop back to Namche. Today follows a stunning valley with fantastic views. You’ll be in Namche in about 4-5 hours so it is worth dropping down the steep hillside you climbed all those days ago and staying for the night in Monjo instead. This is a small village with a good range of lodges and this sets you up nicely for your final day.
Monjo to Lukla
You know this bit but I’m sure it will feel like a long time since you were last here! After heading along the valley floor you have the final long hill climb back up to Lukla. Remember to reconfirm your flights before the offices close (usually about 4 to 5 pm) then have a great night celebrating your adventure.
Lukla to Kathmandu
Take the flight back to Kathmandu and hit Sam’s Bar for celebratory beers and the chance to share your stories with fellow trekkers and mountaineers.